Bird Photography Highlights of 2021

I had a surprisingly good year for birds in 2021.

Inspired in part by a desire to maintain daily streaks on e-bird and iNaturalist and new equipment I got at the beginning of the year, I got out each day of the year. I took more photos than in 2021 than any prior year and made nearly 1600 bird observations on iNaturalist (each observation has at least one photo).

I finished the year with 179 species (e-bird) in the Sitka area with photos of 177 species and four hybrids (I missed photos of Red Crossbills and White-winged Crossbills). This easily eclipsed my previous best year (161 in 2012).

My Top 12 Favorite Bird Photos of 2021

I had a more difficult time than last year narrowing things down to a reasonable number of favorites (given the 45 honorable mentions photos, arguably I didn’t manage it!).

I gradually pared down the 300+ images I selected in an initial pass. After separating some out into honorable mention categories, I finally settled on twelve to include here as my favorites of the year.

Photos are sorted by date. Click on any thumbnail to enlarge.

Honorable Mention – New this Year

One of these years I won’t see a new bird species.

This was not that year.

With a late July trip offshore and some rare birds in town, I boosted my species list by eight.

There was one first record for Sitka, two species were reported for only the second time, and a third made only its third appearance. In addition to new species, I filled out my photo list with Leach’s Storm-Petrel. I’ve now photographed all 234 species I’ve observed in Alaska (231 of those around Sitka).

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Eurasian Green-winged Teal – It won’t count as a new species for my checklist, but it was nice to see one of these for the first time at Swan Lake in April.

Yellow-headed Blackbird – A call from J. Cedarleaf about an unusual bird at the airport on June 30th turned out to be a Yellow-headed Blackbird. Only the second record for Sitka.

Northern Fulmar – Several stopped by and followed our boat on a July 31st birding trip to the continental shelf off Sitka Sound. A common pelagic species that just requires an opportunity to get out that far.

Pomarine Jaeger – I was in the bow of the boat on our offshore birding trip when I heard Connor call from the stern about a jaeger in the distance. I took pictures of the far off bird, and was somewhat surprised to find it was identifiable. Thanks to long glass and high resolution digital sensors. Without those, this would have remained a mystery bird for me. Probably an uncommon migrant offshore. It was nice to get even this distant look.

Black-footed Albatross – I had fun taking pictures of the many Black-footed Albatross that we observed on the July 31st pelagic trip. I had a hard time picking one photo for this post, but there are many more on my photojournal trip report. Also a common pelagic species that is not hard to find if you can get out where they are.

Lesser Black-backed Gull – August 11th Dave Sonneborn was in town for part of the day and we went birding. With well over 400 species in the state, he’s no stranger to finding rare birds. In this case, we were checking the gulls in the channel when a dark-mantled gull swam to the shore right in front of us. My first thought was Slaty-backed Gull, but then I noticed it had yellow legs. Dave informed me that meant Lesser Black-backed Gull. A first for Sitka. Read more about the sighting in my photojournal.

Gray Catbird – Brian D. and his family are new to birding (inspired by watching The Big Year). He reported a robin-sized gray bird making cat-like calls by his house as dark was falling on September 6th. I was out at first light the next morning and managed poor photos before getting much better looks later in the morning. It spent only one or two more days at this location before moving to Karen J. where it was joined by a second Gray Catbird and stayed for another couple of weeks. The third and fourth records for Sitka.

Ruff – Andrew T. messaged me about an unusual looking large shorebird out on the flats at Totem Park. It turned out to be a tired Ruff, the second record for Sitka. (David K. saw the first back in May 1990 and this one.) It continued into the next day before departing.

Short-tailed Shearwater – Although I added this species to my list this year, in looking into shearwater ID, I am pretty sure I had previously seen and photographed some back in 2019. I had just incorrectly assumed they were Sooty Shearwaters.

Leach’s Storm-Petrel – A big blow overnight October 1-2 made for some nice birding on the October 2nd. I had previously seen this species flying at night, but no photos. I saw several near the shore that morning. Although the Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels continued to show on the waterfront for many more days, but I didn’t see any more Leach’s Storm-Petrels after late morning. Read more about the post-storm birding in my photojournal.

Honorable Mention – Unusual Sightings

Although these are reasonably nice photos of unusual birds for Sitka (and generally represent improvements on previous pictures), they did not quite make the cut for my favorites of the year.

  • Thick-billed Murres are not so unusual out at St. Lazaria. This is on the list because the picture was taken while sitting in my car at the dock in Silver Bay.
  • Brambling made 2020’s list, and the same bird stayed through into March to make the 2021 unusual species highlights as well.
  • Fox Sparrow (red form), only the second or third one I’ve seen here. Our typical birds are much darker brown.
  • Townsend’s Solitaire, the second one I’ve ever seen. After first being reported some blocks away, this one spent a couple weeks in my yard eating seaberries.
  • One of a couple Mountain Bluebirds in Sitka in spring 2021. This was the first bright blue male I’ve seen. As best I can tell, there are still only around 10 reports from Sitka.
  • Sabine’s Gulls are probably fairly common in the outer part of Sitka Sound and beyond. This is only the second time I’ve seen one from shore. It spent a few days in the channel, and cooperated for some nice shots.
  • A Mallard X Northern Pintail hybrid showed up on Swan Lake for an afternoon. Only the second one I’ve seen
  • Always drawing attention from birds and birders alike, a Snowy Owl was content to remain perched under a tree while crows and ravens periodically mobbed from above and several Sitkans observed from nearby.

Honorable Mention – Birds in Action

Subtitle: Feathers, Fur, Food, Fight, and Flight. A set of photos of birds doing things birds do.

With new equipment and advanced autofocus providing a big assist this year, I ended up with many more photos of birds in action than I have in the past. Maybe with more time and experience, I’ll become more discriminating in choosing favorites, but I had trouble narrowing things down further this year, which prompted this new honorable mention category.

Honorable Mention – Portraits

I appreciated the opportunity to take portrait-like photos of several more birds this year.

Honorable Mention – Birds in Place

Photos which are less about the bird, and more about the bird in an environment.

4 thoughts on “Bird Photography Highlights of 2021”

  1. These are wonderful photos, Matt! Thank you for taking the time to sort through your collection and post theses.

  2. Incredible photos! Thanks for putting a notice on the bird list. I can see why choosing your favorites was such a challenge!

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